William Lyon Mackenzie Lived in Dundas before Destiny Called
He was one of the most colourful characters in pre-Confederation Canadian history. But fifteen years before the infamous 1837 Rebellion of Upper Canada, more than a decade before becoming the first mayor of York (Toronto), and before going on to lead one of the fieriest lives in our nation’s history, William Lyon Mackenzie lived in Dundas before following his destiny for which he is so well remembered.
After coming over from Scotland with John Lesslie in 1820 and working on Montreal’s the Lachine Canal, William moved to York and worked with John managing a book and drug store called ‘Lesslie & Sons’ which was owned by Edward Lesslie, but with his son John and Mackenzie splitting the profits. The business expanded and opened new stores in Kingston and Coote’s Paradise, which brought Mackenzie to Dundas early in 1822. The store, known as ‘Mackenzie & Lesslie’ was established on the corner of Main and Baldwin Streets (the site of today’s Cattel Funeral Home), with John and William as proprietors. This store also sold, along with books and drugs, “hardware, cutlery, jewelry,carpenter’s tools, nails, groceries, confections, dye stuffs, paints, &c.” according to advertisements of the day.
Perhaps most important historically, this store also served as our town’s first lending library, which was only one room with 75 books.
On July 1, 1822, William married Isabel Baxter in Montreal. Arriving back in Dundas, Mackenzie and his family are thought to have moved into a residence owned by Edward Lesslie at 34 Baldwin Street.
During his stay in Dundas, he also built a warehouse on the north shore of Spencer Creek just west of East Street (near the current Canadian Tire). In 1823, after a bitter business dispute, William and John Lesslie parted company, splitting the business inventory between them. It is thought they even took the store sign and broke it in half, each taking their own name.
But he kept the warehouse, which he left to the keep of his new partner, Pierre Desjardins (at one point, Mackenzie and Desjardins lived together; perhaps it was their connection with canals that first brought them together). Mackenzie then moved out of Dundas to Queenston in October 1823. But he kept in touch with Dundas and visited often, following and encouraging the progress on Pierre Desjardins’ canal project, which he mentioned frequently in his news publication, “The Colonial Advocate” between 1824 and 1826.
After the unsuccessful Rebellion in December 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie passed this way again on his run to the border to escape the authorities. He is reputed to have hidden in what later became known as “Mackenzie’s Cave” on the Sydenham Hill before continuing his successful rush to exile in the United States. His route through Dundas may have been along the current Thorpe Street, across the bridge at Spencer’s Creek, and then up the wooded slope towards Ancaster, the U.S. and freedom.
In 1849, after being awarded clemency, Mackenzie returned to Canada and lived out the rest of his life in Toronto where he died in 1861. His grandson and namesake, William Lyon Mackenzie King, would go on to become Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
Today, ‘Mackenzie & Lesslie’ and the warehouse on Spencer’s Creek are long gone. The legendary “Mackenzie’s Cave” located just below the Dundas Peak has been concealed by time and nature.
For more details on Mackenzie’s stay in Dundas, the excellent paper “William Lyon Mackenzie: The Dundas Connection” by John Kaler is highly recommended reading. It’s available for in-house reference at the Dundas Museum as are other fascinating documents pertaining to the life and times of Mackenzie’s time in Dundas.